Media, govt reluctance to talk about Chinese incursions emboldened Beijing

That there is something rotten in media kingdoms across India has long been apparent, but the reluctance to cover China’s incursions at half-a-dozen places along the border for several weeks until Monday has marked a dangerous new low. One could only grimace watching Zee TV’s Sudhir Chaudhary argue that Chinese soldiers are incapable of waging war because China’s one-child policy till 2015 has made them put their responsibilities to their parents first.

The exception has been this paper’s Ajai Shukla, who has covered the Chinese incursions with the tenacity of Indian Express’ Sushant Singh has also been admirable in his clarity and conviction. Every journalism student is taught about the Pentagon Papers because it is an exemplar of how media and an independent judiciary must hold a government to account — especially in war-time. Instead, what we had for weeks from most Indian newspapers and TV was a blackout or insistence that nothing was amiss, and that the Chinese were on their side of the LAC.

Beijing was likely emboldened by this silence until this week, both on the part of the media and the government, to push further without fear of reprisals. As Shivshankar Menon, a former ambassador to China and former foreign secretary, said to The Wire this week, “This silence actually suggests to the other side that everything is negotiable. That’s not a very good tactic if there are fundamental changes being made by the Chinese in their depiction of the LAC.”

Silence has also been this government’s modus operandi in overlooking Chinese trespasses in the South China Sea, Beijing’s decision in May to push ahead with national security legislation for Hong Kong and the human rights excesses in the Muslim province of Xinjiang. 

The contrast with 1962 is striking. There were articles aplenty of the growing tensions with China and indeed of discord between the army and the defence minister. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then in his thirties, demanded a special session of Parliament to discuss the government’s lapses in managing that war and Jawaharlal Nehru acceded. Some observers have argued that in the run-up to the 1962 war, denunciations in Parliament closed an opportunity for Nehru to strike a deal with the Chinese for a settlement in 1960. In any case, for the Chinese, the old line goes, a contract is merely a pause in the negotiation, and the border disputes simmer on.

Ultimately, we spend too much time in India treating China as just another rational, powerful country. Nehru was dealing with Mao Zedong, a totalitarian megalomaniac, who was as often brutally battling his own partymen as he was squabbling with the Russians and the US. Revving up the Cultural Revolution in 1964, Mao said, “We must punish this party of ours.” Circa 2020, Beijing is now claiming the Galwan Valley has been its territory all along, having never done so before.

It has been clear for several years now that President Xi Jinping controls the People’s Liberation Army and other organs of the government in a manner that no one else has since Mao, leading one foreign observer to describe him as “CEO of Everything”. Nothing goes unpunished. In January 2013, a prestigious, a traditionally liberal Chinese magazine in Guangzhou challenged Xi’s oft-repeated “China Dream”, which he defined as the “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation, by heralding the “Dream of Constitutionalism” in its cover story. The editors meant a curtailment of powers of the Communist state. Local censors rewrote the entire story. In India today, government interventions are often not even needed: We have cheerleaders instead of TV anchors.

There have been unmissable signs the size of billboards of Beijing’s increasing aggressiveness at home and abroad. Clashes with the Philippines and Indonesia in the South China Sea several, hundred kilometres from China prompted the former Indonesian maritime minister to blow up Chinese fishing vessels illegally in Indonesian waters in 2018. The Chinese ended up with territory in Doklam in 2017 after yet another series of border intrusions. Might is right even in absurd situations. In September 2016, President Barack Obama’s Air Force One was prevented from using its usual landing stairs when Obama disembarked for a G-20 summit in Hangzhou.

What this means, as the academic David Shambaugh wrote long before the backlash against China this year, is that “China is a lonely strategic power, with no allies and strained relations with much of the world”. Glowing Indian media coverage and splashy photo-ops of summits from Wuhan to Mamallapuram last October made us normalise the regime. More empathy for what Nehru was up against would not go amiss, but we must not now irrationally handicap our already stricken economy in attempting to drastically curb our imports from China, which are just 3 per cent of their exports.

Diplomatically and militarily, we must always be on our guard. In 1950, Vallabhbhai Patel said of China that “in the guise of ideological expansion lies (its) concealed racial, national (and) historical claims”. It is a lesson of history we keep learning and forgetting.

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